Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Angels in America

We're only three episodes in and I've already polluted the idea of this new series, in which participants are supposed to choose their single favorite shot from a film. I offered up a fantasia of multiple shots from Showgirls. The idea is to choose only one shot from each film. I did a better job with X-Men. And I'm so happy that people are now playing along... even if the one shot thing is difficult difficult difficult. But this time our indecision is totally rational. Tony Kushner's extraordinary stage epic Angels in America was adapted for the screen in 2003 by Oscar winning Mike Nichols. Rather than limit myself to one shot I'm picking one from each chapter. This I can manage!

Chapter 1 "Bad News"

Mary Louise Parker and Justin Kirk in their pre-Weeds duet. Harper and Prior, the abandoned lovers, are dolled up to provide themselves with distracting glamour in their shared hallucination. But their lonely hearts club memberships are too strong for these distractions to be successful. The framing is deliciously funny here. You could title this still "The Lurking Homosexual" and really, whether it's the men she imagines behind walls, or her own husband or this imaginary friend "aren't you too old for imaginary friends?" she knows he's there.

Chapter 2 "In Vitro"

There are so many shots in the six hours where Prior looks devastatingly lonely as both his condition and his fury at the deficient boyfriend grows. The darkness is going to swallow him up.

Chapter 3 "The Messenger"

It's a slightly canted angle, which tends to be lazy shorthand for "TENSION!" but I mostly chose this shot because the physicality in the relationship between leering Roy (Al Pacino) and confused Joe (Patrick Wilson) is so fascinating. Roy is constantly pawing at Joe, totally hot for the young buck. Joe is mostly oblivious but likes to be touched and yet, it always comes out wrong... particular between the two of them (their next close physical contact will involve clenched shirts, gay confessions and lots of blood). Joe raises his fist and Roy keeps egging him on (he wants sex but he'll definitely take violence as a substitute -- check out the dirty thrill in Pacino's eyes with a sideways glance to Joe's fist)... it's all so disturbing. Roy Cohn is basically the devil. He's asking Joe to sin -- pick a transgression, any transgression -- but the genius of the scene is that it's not terrible advice in this case. Something's gotta give.

Chapter 4 "Stop Moving"

This scene is excitingly lit, both for its obvious bids for EPIC MOMENT status and for its rapidfire shifts in feeling: glaring whites, golden softness, blue mood. Plus, Emma Thompson is just hilarious as the self regarding, impatient and highly vocal heavenly creature.

Chapter 5 "Beyond Nelly"
Here's where I stop being able to choose. It's late at night. I'm exhausted and I love every hallucination in this great piece of theatermovie. An astounding monologue about racial impurity and the afterlife from Belize (Jeffrey Wright) to Roy ends with this condescending dreamy dismissal "Go to sleep now baby. I'm just the shadow on your grave." Director Mike Nichols and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt chase that line with this incredible image.

Both the dead (Meryl Streep as Ethel Rosenberg) and the living (Belize...but "out" gay men in general, really) are haunting Roy. And they'll cast a shadow over him forever. But isn't it rich that you could layer that threatening lullaby monologue over the nearby image of Joe and Harper's tragically unsexy reconciliation and it would work just as well.

Everyone is haunting everyone.

Chapter 6 "Heaven, I'm in Heaven"

My favorite part of chapter six is the frankly incredible duet between Meryl Streep and Al Pacino as they trade hauntings and tauntings, one dead and one dying but both entirely obsessed with defeating the other. "I WIN!" It's the kind of lengthy scene you dream of seeing Great Actors perform together. Neither of them pull any punches but it's also not lazily over the top. It's just perfection, a lucid dream of a duet. But I couldn't decide on a shot. So let's hear it for the absurd diorama (so chintzy, boxy and tiny) that is the angel's final arrival. It's an epic in miniature, both entirely cinematic and thoroughly stagebound. Any time Angels in America embraces both modes simultaneously, it wins.

"Best Shot" Angels
Thank you to these fine heralds for spreading the holy 'Best Shot' word. "I... I... I... I... I..."
  • Crossover Man 'Joe & Roy gathered at the edges' is totally interesting. Read it.
  • Serious Film "The magic of the theater" ohmygod. almost picked this same shot.
  • Nick's Flick Picks the always provocative Mr Davis, picks a naked addition to the text as an emblem of his feelings.
  • Low Resolution Belize and Ethel and the most potent of Angels many messages.
  • Well, Hello Achilles divvies up the best shots to part 1 (Prior) and part 2 (a chaos of character)
  • Much Ado About Nothing highlights the characters and great quotes (but doesn't like the way the movie treats Joe Pitt)
  • Against the Hype goes all Lust, Caution on us. Not only do I think Angels in America is brilliant but I think it tends to inspire brilliance in the audience, too, lifting them up. It's just so rich for personal connections and time and place cultural slotting.
  • vg21random Redemption as Orgasm. See what I mean?
 Other Films in This Series


Michael said...

Your screenshot for Chapter 2 is beyond haunting.

vg21 said...

It's enviable how you could choose one shot from every episode. My favourite is the one from Ch 6, the angle, the colours, the blinding otherworldly light all make it apocalyptic. It never occurred to me it was theatrical but it really is and still very effective on the screen. (If in the right proportion I tend to like theatrical elements on film. It would be great to see Angels on stage to compare.)

Glenn Dunks said...

So many beautiful images. I wanted to join in, but cannot find my copy of the DVD in all of these unpacked boxes.


i will also take suggestions for other movies to cover in this series.

Unknown said...

very good blog...

jazz said...

stunning, you picked such amazing photos.
encapsulating the beauty of this piece
Lavvvv it

Volvagia said...

Night of the Hunter.

Michael said...

Suggestions? Awesome! I was hoping there would be more in this series.

Off the top of my head:

Inglourious Basterds
The Iron Giant
Double Indemnity
Barton Fink
LA Confidential

NicksFlickPicks said...

The Piano, obviously! Or maybe Orlando, in honor of the re-release?

I don't know, I actually like being surprised by the ones you're coming up with. "From the Wonderful, Fathomless Mind of Nathaniel R..."

Andrew R. said...

You expect me to choose ONE SHOT from the greatest TV movie ever?


10 movies I'd like to see done for this series:

Spirited Away (you could fill a dumpster with great shots from this)
Finding Nemo (see Spirited Away)
Godfather (has some really intense shots)
Let the Right One In (swimming pool scene alone)
Goodfellas (how do you pick just one)
WALL-E (like Finding Nemo in space in terms of beauty)
La Dolce Vita (you could pick one shot per chapter...again)
Pan's Labyrinth (I can think of 15 off the top of my head for this one)
Sunset Blvd (the ending alone makes it worth choosing)
Wizard of Oz (a whole pile of iconic shots)

These 10 choices were completely random. Hmmmm...2 Pixar films? Is that a sign?

adam k. said...

Rather off-topic, as I wanted to post this on your "Best in Show" article elsewhere, but:

I think my favorite in The Kids Are All Right was actually Ruffalo. I didn't think Bening was that much better than Moore, to be honest. They both worked the drama like pros, and pushed the comedy a bit too hard in the beginning (I felt). I'm sure they were just trying to underline the initial awkwardness - a defensible choice - but it was too much for me. Ruffalo's easy naturalism anchored the whole thing. And I'd love to see a Film Bitch nod for Mia Wasikowska, who's really hitting the big time now but won't get her due for this movie.

Andrew R. said...

Off topic: Happy 71st Birthday Wizard of Oz!

Joe said...

Love this series.

Not sure how you feel about Luhrman films, but I would love to see you take on one of his. Preerably Australia or Moulin Rouge.

Also would love to see you take on something like a screwball comedy, which aren't really known for their great shots.

The image with Joe Pitt (and that haunting prison-esque shadow which hearkens back to Bergman a bit) and the shot from chapter 1. The scene from chapter one is etched in my memory as well. It was just a really great scene and I loved seeing those to characters together - however briefly. It's probably my favorite scene in part 1.

Anonymous said...

I almost picked that same image from Chapter Two, though I had a lot of images and culling it down to ten was hard work! It's such a haunting image.

Lyla said...

All of this Angels in America talk is making me so happy!!! Squee! Finally!